THE REV. JESSE JACKSON'S successful rescue effort of Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr. was a well-calculated political risk that proved to be a most telling comment on Jackson's Democratic candidacy. Jackson's previously voiced dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party should be recognized as only a minor facet of his plans. Jackson wants to become president, not simply bring attention to the inadequacies of President Ronald Reagan or the no-win options on the Democratic slate he opposes.
By pegging his rescue of Goodman as a "Mission of Mercy," and stating his concerns as a citizen, not a Democratic candidate, Jackson downplayed the political significance of his effort, leaving lots of room for others, particularly the media to play it up. Jackson was smart enough to leap into a no-lose political situation. If he had not been successful, he would still have been lauded for the attempt by his supporters and any failure could have been blamed on the State Department and Reagan's limited negotiatory stance with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
The controversy surrounding Jackson's effort, amid State Department warnings, insured nightly news coverage, the cheapest form of campaign publicity. The good reverend also limited his usually heated anti-Reagan rhetoric, even going so far (upon his return) as to thank the State Department for not blocking the mission.
The Jackson campaign workers used an age-old tactic: if the candidate is not getting enough attention at home, send him abroad. With Reagan's foreign policy becoming a growing thorn in his side, Jackson's concern for Goodman was well-timed. But Jackson has a history of such maneuvers. He has become the most recognized Black leader since the Civil Rights Movement, without running or holding any political office. When his Operation PUSH was under investigation for questionable financial shuffling, where was Jackson? Lending his support to Black mayoral candidates Harold Washington. Mel King and Wilson Goode, so that their successes would reflect upon him. Jackson has mastered the politician's genius for being in the right place at the right time.
But the rescue of Goodman is different from past cases, because it was engineered on a higher level of political expertise. Jackson can play up the risk of his mission (though there wasn't any politically for him) and Americans will agree with him when he says it was "the right thing to do." His is the stuff that heroes are made from. So what will Jesse do now? If he can keep the American public asking that question, Jackson has a chance to stay in the limelight.
It can only be assumed then that, like the opportunist he has admitted to being, he will take advantage of his position in the forefront. Although the press has already declared Mondale the candidate for the Democratic nomination, Jackson cannot be ignored.
The question is whether Jackson will end one campaign and begin another. He has been running at a ragged pace to keep the yet-to-be established office known as the Leader of Blacks. He has successfully launced the largest voter registration movement in the country's history. Can he move from those campaigns to a real presidential one? In a field of Democratic candidates that make a lifelong Democratic want to vote for Reagan, it is possible that an alternative may present itself in Jesse Jackson. The rescue of Lt. Goodman points to such an idea, still narrowly conceived amid Jackson supporters, but probably firmly planted in the mind of Jackson himself.